Politico’s Shane Goldmacher reported this week that Ted Cruz is planning a major rally on “religious liberty” at Bob Jones University in November. Even though it has been clear for a while that framing opposition to LGBT equality, abortion and contraception as religious liberty issues is a core strategy of right-wing culture warriors like Cruz, Bob Jones is still a stunning choice. After all, the “religious liberty” Bob Jones is most famous for defending was its long insistence that its segregationist policies were mandated in the Bible.
Of course Cruz’s choice could be a cunning and calculated one based on the fact that his campaign’s roadmap to victory requires a big boost in turnout among conservative evangelicals who are disaffected with politics. Appearing at Bob Jones University, specifically to talk about religious liberty, is the granddaddy of all dog-whistles to the far right.
A bit of background: During the 1970s, the federal government began to crack down on segregation academies that had sprung up in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision more than a decade earlier. The IRS formally promulgated its policy that racially discriminatory private schools were not entitled to federal tax-exempt status in 1971. After years of fighting with Bob Jones, the IRS revoked the university’s tax-exempt status in 1976. The school kept fighting, ultimately losing at the Supreme Court in 1983 in an 8-1 decision.
Religion scholar Randall Balmer writes that it was the federal government’s move against segregationist schools, even more than the Roe v Wade decision, that gave Paul Weyrich the opening to create the Religious Right political movement. He tapped into conservative evangelicals’ anger at the federal government interference in segregationist religious schools. In his book about the Religious Right, “Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament,” Balmer wrote about a conservative 1990 conference at which Weyrich spoke:
Let's remember, he said animatedly, that the Religious Right did not come together in response to the Roe decision. No, Weyrich insisted, what got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.
Bob Jones University was one target of a broader attempt by the federal government to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had sought to penalize schools for failure to abide by antisegregation provisions. A court case in 1972, Green v. Connally, produced a ruling that any institution that practiced segregation was not, by definition, a charitable institution and, therefore, no longer qualified for tax-exempt standing…
For his part, Weyrich saw the evangelical discontent over the Bob Jones case as the opening he was looking for to start a new conservative movement using evangelicals as foot soldiers. Although both the Green decision of 1972 and the IRS action against Bob Jones University in 1975 predated Jimmy Carter's presidency, Weyrich succeeded in blaming Carter for efforts to revoke the tax-exempt status of segregated Christian schools. He recruited James Dobson and Jerry Falwell to the cause, the latter of whom complained, "In some states it's easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school."
So what game is Cruz playing? Is he going to play up right-wing fears that the federal government will go after the tax-exempt status of schools with anti-gay policies? Is talking about religious liberty at Bob Jones some oddly aggressive way to make the right-wing argument that there are no parallels between racial discrimination and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity?
Cruz made that argument during a June interview on the Today show, when he declared that “there’s no religious backing” for denying marriage licenses to interracial couples. That, of course, is an absurd argument, as the federal judge who had upheld Virginia’s laws against mixed-race marriages in Loving v Virginia specifically cited the Bible in defense of the law. And as Brian noted in June:
Cruz should know better. After all, the Tea Party leader announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, one of the fathers of the modern Religious Right movement, who denounced both desegregation and interracial marriages in religious terms.
Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention was created in a split with northern Baptists over slavery. Southern Baptists preached that the Bible endorsed slavery, citing “slaves obey your masters” verses that were still being used by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s to justify attacks on labor unions.